(Below is a chapter from Sunday Brunch with the World Maker)
I wouldn’t mind at all listening to some of Cael’s love stories, but I was not about to ask him. Nor did he seem inclined to tell me. He was happily devouring the rest of the caviar, the shrimps and the lobster. I was a bit more careful, since there was quite a lot yet to explore at the buffet.
Instead, I sipped calmly on the Champagne, having a look around at the other brunch guests of the Peacock Alley.
There were quite a lot of them, although several tables were still vacant. Some of the guests were dressed up, as if going to church or the theater. Others were not. Most of them were properly dressed, but nothing fancy.
I remembered some statement about a dress code for the Sunday brunch, but apparently it was nothing the staff pursued vigorously. My tie could stay rolled up in my pocket.
I had all but forgotten about the piano player. Now, I listened and heard him more clearly.
He had the discretion of allowing brunch guests to simply forget about his presence, should they prefer that. It was almost as if he performed in a library. He sang, too, into a microphone, but his voice was rather mellow and the speakers were not that loud. Just so that his voice was not drowned by the sound from the grand piano, which he played quite gently.
His repertoire was the usual one of neutrally performed evergreens and contemporary pop songs from high up on the charts. Not that very far from elevator music. I let my ears lose their attention to it.
Then I became aware that Cael had just said something. I turned to him.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear.”
“Were you listening to the piano player?”
“Not really. He is playing background music, which is quite enough here.”
Cael sent a quick glance in the direction of the piano player. Then his eyes were back on me.
“I was asking what makes you happy. It’s not love, we have established. Something else, then?”
I looked at his face, which was expressing mild curiosity. It struck me that he no longer looked that much like Ezra Miller as I had marveled at to begin with. The dark Asian eyes were still there, as well as the pale skin and the black hair. But something in my perception of his face had changed. His features remained ravishing, but in their own way and not as a copy of someone else.
I thought the change was simply because I had gotten to know that face. It was no longer a stranger, and therefore Cael looked like no other than himself.
“Actually,” I told him, “I don’t really believe in happiness, either.”
Of course, I have felt happy at times. Countless times. The moment that popped up from my memory was from childhood. An unforgettable though rather commonplace experience.
I was about nine or ten years old, living in the Stockholm suburb Hässelby. On the way by foot from my home to the shopping center, a distance not even reaching a mile, I changed from walking to skipping. It was on an impulse, just as I reached an overpass.
I crossed the overpass in no time, and it hit me that this hopping style of running was not only quite fast, but also completely effortless. It was as if I just sailed ahead, although there was not even any wind. As if gravity suddenly shifted to a forward instead of downward pull. I felt I could do it forever.
In my mind, it was like flying. The weight of the world disappeared.
I was overcome by happiness, so intense it would be more accurate to call it euphoria. There was something so joyous about the ease by which I skipped my way forward, I could have burst out laughing if I wasn’t already consumed by the sensation and my speedy advance.
It was so fast I felt the resistance of the air as I plowed through it. I thought that this is how we should always transport ourselves. Skipping through life. We would never be sad.
When I reached the shopping center, I had to slow down to walking. But that did not put an end to my joy. It kept tickling all through my body. I had discovered something of immense value, which I could utilize at will, any time I wanted. I had found the panacea, the miracle cure for everything.
I marveled at nobody else seeming to know, although it was so obvious. What clouded their eyes? Or were they opposed to this instant kind of bliss, for some reason?
People did seem reluctant to have fun and feel good, for sure. Especially adults, but also kids of my own age. As if it were a sin. Already at that young age I had come across it more than once – the joy of one was the aggravation of the others. Those who did not laugh with you tended to scold you or even pick fights with you. Joy was met with anger. Strange.
It didn’t always happen. I had also found laughter to be contagious. But it was not a sure thing. Suddenly, people would be provoked by laughter, even though it was obvious that nobody laughed at them.
My conclusion was that people don’t always want to be happy. Usually they don’t. I had no idea why, but a child must learn the safe path through life. After all, man is a predator, also of other men.
So, I decided to keep the joy of skipping to myself, and to use this miracle cure with caution.
Now and then, I would start to skip, but only when I had no company and not for long. As the years passed, those moments became increasingly rare. I don’t even remember the last time I did it.
Cael had been silent while I was reminiscing. He looked at me with his head tilted to the side and his lips closed in the faintest suggestion of a smile. It looked like pity.
“You are a hard man to please,” he said.
I shrugged my shoulders. My hand went for the glass and I had another sip of the Champagne.
“It gets me thinking,” Cael continued. “What’s your meaning of life, if you have one?”
“My meaning of life?”
Cael nodded, with a tiny smile playing on his lips. He was still absolutely charming, indeed. I wanted to give him the best answer I could.
“I’d hesitate to speculate about one meaning of life applicable to all humans. I seriously doubt that there is such a thing.”
“Right,” he butted in. “That would be boring.”
I was puzzled by his sudden statement, as if this was a quiz and he was the game leader with all the right answers. This young man, what could he know about the meaning of life? I pretended not to have heard his remark, and continued.
“For me, I guess the closest I have gotten to a meaning is to explore all of what I might be able to express. My talents, if you will. After all, that’s what I’ve been spending most of my time on. I’m doing an excavation of my mind, bringing out what treasures I find.”
I sort of chuckled from sudden embarrassment.
“Treasures to me, anyway,” I added. “That’s the only criterion I can trust, the only one I feel satisfied with.”
“Fine with me,” Cael said. It seemed he did not subscribe to the Jante law of self-denial. “Please go on.”
“The Japanese concept of Do, the Way, is different from the Taoist version, although it’s the same word. In everyday use, like in the word aikido, it signifies the personal path one chooses, by which to mature and realize oneself, refine one’s abilities and character. They see it as the thing you do in order to work on and express your progress through life. Your vessel, so to speak. That’s sort of what I do, and not only in my aikido practice. I strive to get as much as possible out of me, to discover what’s inside of me.”
“And what is that?”
“It’s an ongoing process,” I replied with a smile.
“Not really. I’m not even fond of that expression. I prefer satori, the Zen concept.”
“But doesn’t that word mean enlightenment?”
”That’s how it’s usually translated, but it’s misleading. Satori is a passing thing, not a state you reach to remain there forever on. Suddenly, you have a kind of epiphany, where you grasp the essence and meaning of it all. Then you just go back to the same old same old. It will be different from that moment on, but you don’t levitate away from it. The world is still there. It just becomes even more real, more worldly, than ever before.”
I had one of those satori moments after three years of aikido, when I started throwing people without touching them and things like that. It was quite a sensation. But soon, I found myself continuing with the basic techniques in a regular fashion. They felt different, more refined or maybe simplified, but they didn’t look much different.
Still, I was convinced it was a turning point. Something had changed. I had. But aikido had not, so I just continued with the practice.
After twelve years of training, I had another satori experience. It was less spectacular, but it probably changed the nature of my aikido even more. Things fell into place. My movements became part of me.
Also, I had a strong sense of realizing the role of aikido in my life. It was kind of like new shoes, when you break them in and stop noticing that you have them on. Aikido became a part of me, as natural as my skin and my breathing.
And I just kept practicing. I like that. You go on with life as usual, whatever you find on the way. There is a definite change, a spectacular one, but you go on almost like there wasn’t one.
“By remaining in the world as we know it,” I explained to Cael, “we notice that change much more than we would if we just escaped to some Nirvana or Paradise or whatever. I think the whole trick is not to go beyond reality, but to discover what reality really is.”
“So, what is it?”
“That’s what I strive to find out.” I thought about my words for a while, and then I added, “What reality is to me. What my mind can tell me about reality.”
“Any clues so far?” Cael inquired with a tone that could be ironic.
“Plenty. I just haven’t connected them all, yet.”
“You will.” The irony was gone.
“That’s what I keep thinking. Suddenly, I will. And maybe that’s what my life is all about.”
Cael nodded, calmly and confidently. I found his reaction odd. Again, I got the impression that this was some kind of quiz, and he was the self-appointed game leader.
“I see we’re back to me,” I mumbled. “Cael, I’m beginning to think you’re as secretive about yourself as I had to be when I was a restaurant critic.”
“Not at all,” he assured me, even shaking his head slightly. “You just have to ask the right questions.“ Then he smiled, of course, but in a most friendly way.
I suddenly remembered a session I had with some friends and an Ouija board, when I was in my teens. I was involved in lots of stuff of that nature, growing up.
We were sitting in a circle on the floor, with the Ouija board in the middle. It was late at night, of course. We giggled a lot. It was tantalizing in a way not too different from a flirt with the hope of leading to seduction.
After some rounds of semi-serious questions, I needed to challenge both me and the board. So, I asked the age-old existential question, “Why am I here?”
I was whispering so low, little more than just thinking it. My friends could not hear me. They put their index fingers on the planchette and it immediately started moving on the board with the alphabet in capital letters.
It started slowly, moving here and there on the board. Suddenly it stopped over the letter M. After a short pause, it continued to O and then M. Then it went back to its original position. It had spelled MOM.
I am here because of my mom. Sure, that is true for any person, but in my case even more so. My mother had set her mind on reproducing with the man who became my father. She explained to me that he had perfect teeth. But that isn’t how genetics work. I have not.
We made a round, and when it was again my turn I had to give it another try. I asked, “Who am I?” The planchette first landed on S, and I thought it was going to spell Stefan. It would be true, of course, but a bummer. Then it quickly moved through A – T – A – N.
I quit my existential questions after that.
I was pulled out of my memories by that xylophone laughter I had gotten to know quite well. Cael looked at me with a grin of great amusement.
“What?” I asked.
“You tell me,” he said.
I fell back into my thoughts. I have tried several occult methods – mostly, but far from only, in my young years. Hypnosis, the I Ching, the Tarot, astrology, palmistry, you name it. They could really impress me at times. I mean really.
But I found them all consistent on one and the same point. If I tried a question relating to the purpose of my life or the meaning of it all, they would just reply with balderdash. If I insisted, they would get threatening, as if angrily disapproving. Like the Ouija board.
Some things about life you just have to figure out on your own.
“Ain’t that the truth!” Cael concluded, seemingly out of nowhere.
“What you said. Suddenly one day you will connect the dots, and that’s what your life is all about.”
“Aha,” I said, still feeling a bit confused. “I certainly hope so. Otherwise, I will not die without moaning.”
I tried a laugh, but it didn’t work out that well. It sounded like I coughed.
I leaned forward over the table, catching Cael’s eyes and sticking to them. He had no problem with that. It was more distracting to me, since up close his countenance was even more striking. One could easily get lost in it.
I blinked to snap out.
“Now it’s your turn, Cael. You must tell me what you might have found out about the meaning of it all.”
“There’s still plenty of time for that,” he replied. “I promise.”
I glanced at the big clock by the buffet. It was about a quarter to twelve. Only forty-five minutes had passed since we began our brunch. I could have sworn it was longer.
“Please, you have to give me something. Otherwise I’ll start feeling like a lab rat.”
He laughed and put his hand on mine, which was resting on the table. His skin was still dry and rather cool, as if we were outdoors. The fingers were exceptionally slim and long. A pianist’s dream. The nails were immaculate. Maybe he was a model, and that was how he made his money. He should be.
“I’ll tell you this for now,” he said. “I make the meaning.”
“You make your meaning of life? You don’t search for it, but decide what you want it to be?”
“That too. It’s the same.”
I thought about it for a moment.
“That could work, I guess.” After thinking of it some more, I added, “Maybe that’s really what we all do.”
About the author:
Stefan Stenudd is a writer, artist, aikido instructor and historian of ideas – among other things. As a novelist, Stenudd made his debut in 1979 with the novel Om om. After that he has published a series of novels as well as books on astrology and Swedish interpretations of the Chinese book of wisdom Tao Te Ching and the famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi’s book on military strategy, The Book of Five Rings. His book on aikido is the most extensive book on the art in Swedish. In 2008 his own translation of it into English was published. More about him and his works at : www.stenudd.com